Untrending: No One Really Knows If Facial Yoga Works
The only study of facial yoga found facial exercises yielded a more youthful appearance — but the research is questionable.
Facial yoga — it sounds like the bastard, money-grubbing child of Lululemon and Goop. And yet, it’s a real thing that promises to slim the face and reduce signs of fatigue and aging — but naturally, obviating the ‘need’ for nips or tucks or injections.
There’s virtually nothing that substantiates these claims.
The premise of facial yoga is that certain contortions of one’s face into a variety of strange expressions act as resistance-training exercises that can build underlying facial muscles. These newly toned facial muscles, in theory, will slim the face and/or plump up the places (cheeks, forehead) that tend to sag and wrinkle, as muscle replaces the fat and soft tissue we lose naturally as we age.
First, the claim that facial yoga will slim the face is downright false. This is just one more iteration of the spot reduction myth. Exercising a specific part of the body does not ensure weight loss in that particular location; we can’t dictate in which body part we burn calories. The best way to get a slimmer face, if that’s your heart’s desire, is to focus on general exercise toward general weight loss — or, to tolerate the natural aging process; the thinning of the fat pads that underly the cheeks tends to leave faces more hollowed (but also, more wrinkled).
Second, the claim that facial yoga will plump up the places most prone to sagging and wrinkling — well, it’s questionable at best. In 2018, the internet was full of headlines reporting a study that found 20 weeks of facial exercises made participants look three years younger. But there are some major flaws with the study that most reports overlooked or buried so deep most readers didn’t stick around to learn the caveats.
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Published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, Northwestern University dermatologists recruited 27 women, aged 40 to 65, to perform 30-minute facial exercises for 20 weeks. For the first eight weeks, the participants performed the facial yoga routine every day; for the remaining 12 weeks, the participants performed the routine every other day. At the end, two dermatologists used the Merz-Carruthers Facial Aging Photoscale to estimate the before and after ages of the participants; of the before photos estimated to be 51 years old, the corresponding after photos were estimated to be 48 years old. In other words, supposedly, the facial yoga regimen took three years off women’s facial appearance. Also at the end, participants reported being “highly satisfied” with 18 out of 20 facial features tracked during the study.
Except, it only took three years off the appearance of 16 women; more than one-third of participants dropped out during the course of the study. Sixteen is a very tiny number that is hardly evidence of facial yoga working for anyone and everyone. Also, the study did not explore how long these benefits — if they actually exist — last. Finally, the 32 facial exercises participants performed were designed by Gary Sikorski, the founder of Happy Face Yoga, one of the early movers and shakers in facial yoga instruction based in Providence, R.I., in the U.S. Sikorski is also a co-author of the study. This opens up concerns over confirmation bias — Sikorski stood to gain much from academic research that backs up the benefits of his product.
Beyond this, the efficacy of facial yoga just hasn’t been studied, which makes all claims notional at best. And there are plenty of eminent dermatologists who take issue with the entire premise of facial yoga outright:
“The truth is that many of our facial wrinkles come from excess muscle activity,” Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel, chief of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Boston University School of Medicine, told Healthline. The concept that pumping up facial muscles can prevent wrinkling, is “like saying ‘stop drinking water if you’re thirsty.’ The opposite works.”
What actually has been found to benefit facial appearance is following a healthy diet, not smoking, managing stress, moisturizing dry skin as needed, and applying sunscreen, which all seem a far better use of any spare 30 minutes during a day.
That said, if reducing wrinkles and achieving a more youthful look is important to you, facial yoga is a far safer and more affordable option than a facelift or botox injections. Just don’t expect the same results.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.